Volvo’s New XC90 T6 Puts Safety First

Here’s a sobering factoid to contemplate while you’re risking life, limb, and sanity negotiating the commuter chaos that is I-75: In 2014, more than 32,000 Americans lost their lives in car wrecks. That’s around 90 every day. Or the occupants of roughly 64 Boeing 747 jumbo jets.

Before you hang up your car keys, consider this equally illuminating aspiration from the safety gurus at Volvo: They promise, hand on heart, that by 2020—a mere four years away—no one will be killed or seriously injured in one of their cars or SUVs.

That doesn’t include a driver croaking from cardiac arrest after scarfing down a third box of Krispy Kreme snickerdoodle doughnuts or the distracted dunce who flies off a cliff Thelma & Louise–style while composing that oh-so-vital text.

But zero deaths in a Volvo come 2020 is an impressive goal and one that deserves applause.

It’s all part of the rush to create autonomous or self-piloting cars, for which Volvo is leading the charge. The reasoning is, if the car does the braking, the avoiding, and the steering—rather than the texting/speeding/distracted humanoid behind the wheel—accidents will become a thing of the past.

These thoughts and many more were filling my gray matter as I slid behind the wheel of the new version of Volvo’s much-loved XC90 sport-ute.

This is one handsome trucklette, especially the top-of-the-line $67,000 R-Design version I tested with its Bursting Blue metallic paint, black mesh grille, Jay Leno–sized chin spoiler, and bigger-than-big 22-inch alloys.

Counter to the current designer craze of trying to make SUVs look like swoopy-roofed sports coupes, this new XC90 is reassuringly tall and boxy with a squared-off rump perfectly suited to swallowing that 42-inch flat screen you just picked up at Best Buy.

The cabin is a smorgasbord of Scandiwegian cool. The front seats boast racing-style side bolsters, power-adjustable under-thigh extenders, and snug nappa leather trimmed with nubuck suede. The XC90 continues as a three-row seven-seater, but that back row is tight, practically unsuitable for man or beast. Simply climbing back there requires the contorting skills of a Russian gymnast.

Under the hood, the new 2-liter 4-cylinder has the distinction of having both a supercharger and a turbocharger. Volvo reckons a supercharger is great for delivering plenty of low-down muscle while a turbo works better at high revs.

Judging by the numbers, it makes sense as this super engine cranks out a healthy 316-horsepower and 295 pounds of torque. This is all coupled with a smooth-shifting 8-speed automatic resulting in enough power to punch the XC from rest to 60 mph in about 6 seconds.

But Volvo has pledged to offer only 4-cylinder engines from now on, and if it wants to attract luxury buyers more accustomed to smoother V-6s then it needs to work on this 2-liter. I found it slightly rough and ragged, especially when revved. And my 18.8-mpg average over 350 miles of mixed driving was far from impressive, especially for a four.

Frankly, a few too many other features of this sporty Swede drove me crazy, especially some of the helicopter-parent safety technology. Take the Lane Keeping Aid, which is part of a suite of safety features designed to allow the XC90 to virtually drive itself. Rival systems gently ease you back into your lane if you drift toward the lines. The XC90 is so aggressive it feels like the wheel is being wrenched out of your palms by some demented weightlifter. I had to turn it off.

Then there are irritations like the AC unit’s fan speed. On Speed 1, it’s as gentle as a baby’s breath. Move up to Speed 2 and it’s like standing behind a Delta 767 on takeoff. There is absolutely no middle ground.

Add to that the crazy key fob, which places the teeny lock and unlock buttons not on the front where you can see them but hidden on the side. It’s just a pain, especially in the dark.

Given its promise of life-saving safety, I really wanted to love this new XC90. But in the end I was happy to hand back the keys.

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